Photos | Amazon Studios / Universal Pictures
Wonderstruck,” a child-friendly film directed by auteur Todd Haynes, sounds incredible on paper. Perhaps that’s because it began on paper, as a heavily illustrated novel by acclaimed author Brian Selznick. The film also features a great deal of beautiful papery creations. Yet somehow the journey to film, steeped though it may be in classic cinematic imagery, becomes somewhat tedious.
This is not the first of Selznick’s enchanting and sophisticated Young Adult novels to be translated to film. His “The Invention of Hugo Cabret” became the 2011 film “Hugo,” and was directed by no less than Martin Scorsese. That film, set in 1930s Paris, was a steampunk valentine to silent film, but also action packed and tightly plotted.
“Wonderstruck” is a dual-storyline tale that follows the lonely lives of two children who are both deaf: one, Rose, in 1927 and a boy named Ben in 1977. Both come to New York City in search of family, and both end up at the Museum of Natural History. Their stories intertwine touchingly across the decades. It is of note that the actress who plays Rose, Millicent Simmonds, is actually deaf, and gives a delicate, evocative performance.
Now, I love museums, silent films and stories that involve precocious, sensitive runaways camping out in Manhattan museums. But this artful film is too in love with these ideas, even for me. The sections set in 1927 are entirely silent and shot in black and white, which is a cool idea, because Rose is deaf and loves silent films and her mother, played by Julianne Moore, is a silent film star. This lovely concept, however, is less compelling as you’re watching the film. A little goes a long way, and there is more than a little.
The scenes set in the 1970s are naturally easier to follow, but nonetheless slow going. At last Ben, who has lost his dear mother in a car accident, runs away in search of the father he never met, following a clue he found in a book. The clue takes him from Minnesota to New York City, and he makes friends with another lonely boy whose father works at the Museum of Natural History. Naturally, they end up spending the night in the magical, shadowy halls and attics of the museum. We don’t get there for at least an hour, but then things finally pick up.
In the film’s touching conclusion, Ben and the audience learn about his father and his past, and it happens in the splendid company of an enormous model of New York City, a magnificent project created by one of the film’s characters for the World’s Fair. The visuals are truly memorable. The characters, however, could have been more compelling. The story itself got lost in the beauty of telling it.
“Wonderstruck” is supposed to be a film for children, but it is really a film about children, for adults. The youthful emotions evoked feel very much like what an adult wants a child to feel. This film was beautiful and interesting, but certainly not an authentic expression of childhood. Similarly, as a parent this might be the kind of worthwhile film you’d want your kids to want to watch — sensitive, literate, culturally educational — but good luck getting them to actually watch it.
For sensitive adults who would prefer not to watch violent movies, there is a great deal to appreciate in “Wonderstruck,” and several sequences are so visually inventive it’s worth viewing just for that. But the imagination evident in this film overshadows more traditional storytelling elements, and it might have been a stronger film if more emotion had been allowed to shine through the carefully constructed theatrical beauty.
“Wonderstruck” is currently available to rent.